How much influence will Bishop have?

Posted 7/5/18

Well, the sheriff's race continues to escalate in rhetoric, thanks to the ads from Sheriff Jim Underwood. Facebook lit up like a Christmas tree when Underwood released an online ad, proclaiming, "Do …

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How much influence will Bishop have?


Well, the sheriff's race continues to escalate in rhetoric, thanks to the ads from Sheriff Jim Underwood. Facebook lit up like a Christmas tree when Underwood released an online ad, proclaiming, "Do you want 'Charlie Big Buck$' running your Sheriff's Office?" that portrayed former Sen. Charles Bishop as a puppeteer and challenger Nick Smith as his puppet, standing over a pile of cash.

A photo of Underwood holds a sign saying "NOT FOR SALE,"  while wording says, "It is time to cut the strings on the Bishop choke hold on Walker County Politics!" 

Then, to make sure of things, it carried a small photo of Charles Bishop throwing that punch at Lowell Barron in the Senate, saying, "It's time to end his bullying tactics!"

The ad (and other less-than-subtle ads Underwood has sponsored of late) raises the question of how much of a hold Bishop has on Smith. Frankly, I'm not sure it is much of one. 

Bishop's interest in the primary seemed to come very late, I think due to his concern about the county's high ranking in terms of drugs. (He spoke about that at a Jasper City Council meeting.) Then, you will recall, Smith and Bishop both made statements that Underwood appeared to be planning a raid on drug offenders the Thursday before the primary election, holding back arrest warrants for months to time the effort right. The crimes allegedly did go back a ways, although the arrest warrants came late. Many people didn't like the appearance of tipping off a drug raid, which is unsettling by habit, although the raid did take place a few days before the election. That was one of those times many voters could say they were not happy all the way around. 

After the primary, Underwood practically said Bishop was trying to buy and control Smith, and that he, the sheriff, could not be sold. I note in Smith's financial forms, Bishop Farms, which has a Jasper post office box, donated $7,000 on June 6, the day after the primary. That is a lot of money, to be sure. 

However, at the same filing, which covers June 1-22, Smith got $3,000 from another individual in Bremen and $4,000 from a Jasper individual, both after the primary. That filing all together was $15,750 in donations. 

And then one steps back and sees that Smith has raised nearly $78,000 since the campaign began last year, including $38,865 this calendar year. Underwood has raised $2,950 in contributions this calendar year, and none in 2017; most of his campaign has been self-funded. Underwood and Smith both have spent a little more than $48,000 in 2018. In 2017, Smith spent $7,952, while Underwood spent $1,866.  (As of the end of June, Smith has an ending balance of $12,889, while Underwood has an ending balance of negative $15,773.) 

It is amazing to think Smith has raised $78,000 for one county race, and many of those contributions have been smaller. One filing on July 31, 2017, showed 27 donations, none of them over $500; on July 4, 2017, he had 24 donations, only four of which were $1,000 contributions. 

But if one is to charge that Bishop is buying Smith, I would think Bishop would still have to stand in line, as $7,000 never got Smith in the runoff, and is a pretty small fraction of the overall take. It is nothing to sneeze at, for sure — and Lord knows Bishop is no shrinking violet in terms of urging action — but one could point to a whole lot of people who contributed to Smith. 

I think Underwood can make a case he, the incumbent, is not being bought because few contributed to his campaign. That may have been by design. But the truth of modern politics is that it runs on money. Federal, state and local political observers watch the take with keen interest. Whether Underwood intended to self-fund or not, it is not a good policy to go into a heavy race with few but yourself to fund it. The vultures out there are keeping track, and it was clear that Smith had an incredibly larger number of donors, especially in smaller donations, mixed in with larger donations. It was an encouraging sign that signals a winner to those who can donate and lend support. In the end, it foretold that the man almost won without a runoff. 

In the end, I think Bishop's influence would be minimal, even with $7,000. No one would probably have been paid attention to him had he not gone on statewide talk radio with a host who knew him. One can argue it was a good thing or a bad thing; I personally think it would have been best not to do it, although it had minimal effect. (Apparently, judging from the numbers, drug offenders don't watch political debates or listen to talk radio.) There are many who will still pay attention to Bishop.

Perhaps an argument can be made that Bishop could try to cash in. I don't see that happening; Bishop may call him up and bend his ear some days but I don't see Smith jumping at Bishop's beck and call, even if Bishop wanted him to. His purposes served to get his man, I would not be surprised to see Bishop eventually start spending more time out of town again. (As for his brother, Jerry, I would be shocked if he ran for re-election to the commission, especially if the financials are sorted out.) 

Truthfully, Bishop, who is now 80, really is not the influence he might have been when he was a senator. Much of that political capital went out the window with the punch, and much more went when he left the Senate and was defeated later for the House. He is concerned, energetic, still opinionated, but I don't think he has a grip on power in the county. As we saw, he can still make a great play and he can offer a lot of cash, but, truthfully, I think his influence on the commission has been more limited than most believe, and I think that will be the case with this election. He wants to tackle the drug problem, and, alarmed at what he saw was a cheap ploy, he used his political skills to help his candidate. 

In the end, I think saying that Bishop is trying to buy his way into influence over the office is not as much the reflection as is the fact that Smith simply has done an incredibly good job in campaigning and fundraising. That is not slanting myself against Underwood; I won't lose sleep if he wins or if Smith wins. I can see arguments for both men, and both can do well when they talk about the issues.

But in the end, $7,000 today won't be enough to run the office, whoever gets elected. With all the problems at hand, someone is going to need a lot more cash than that to solve some problems. And I can honestly say I don't care who wins — I just want them to have the resources and ability to fix the problems. And they will need all the help they can get. Hopefully, we can return to talking about those problems before the race is over. 

Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle's news editor.